An interview with David Krassner, director of Agoura High School’s current production of Rent. Krassner uses his experience as an actor on Broadway and in national tours to guide young actors in the early stages of their careers, a task that has proven rewarding for Krassner. He is in his third year as drama director at Agoura High.
VCOS: When I think of Rent, I think of two shows. One is Hair because both shows deal with a group of young people who think of themselves as a kind of a family representing their own time and social issues. The other is West Side Story because it is an updated version of an older story, in that case, Romeo and Juliet, and in this case, the Puccini opera La Boheme. So what you are doing with Rent is updating it again for today’s generation of young performers. Both Rent and West Side Story were contemporary when they were first produced, but now they are considered period pieces. My question is, how important is it to try and make the story relevant to today’s students or is it your goal to teach about the 1980s and ’90s and the AIDS crisis?
DAVID: Well, it’s interesting that you asked me that because the very first question that I asked my cast was “Put yourself thirty years from the future. How will you describe 2020 to your grandkids or your children? What will define this age?” And I wrote this in my director’s notes. Are you going to talk about horrible political discourse? Are you going to talk about school shootings? Are you going to talk about Tik-Tok? Are you going to talk about social media? How are you going to define how you grew up? What defined YOU? And the reason I said that is because this play and this era defined me. It defined who I was as an artist.
VCOS: Can you elaborate on that?
DAVID: I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my life in general. I went to a good school, I got a great internship with Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, where there were 16 of us from around the country. That got me connections to New York and a week before my 24th birthday I’m doing the lead in the Tony Award-winning show of that year and going in for Harvey Fierstein. I knew that that would be a bell that would be hard to ever ring again. That brought me to Los Angeles. I spent ten years on the road working in some of the greatest regional theaters that we have and then started concentrating on film and TV. Then I got married. And I had children. So that changed dynamics; I couldn’t travel and I couldn’t do what I had always done as an artist. But I had kids and I didn’t want to be away from them. So I looked at my second love, which is teaching. I mean look where I’m working! This is frigging Disneyland! Agoura High is the dream of every theatre teacher. Be my feet on the ground. I have kids working in 15 million different places, everything from Greek theatre to modern female playwrights. So it’s really been an incredible journey. But most of that journey was defined by the ’80s. I lost so many friends. Hugely influential people in my life. And it really makes you look at no date but today. How do you measure your life? Choosing love and not fear. You have to. In order to survive that war, you had to choose love, not fear, because if you chose to live your life in fear, nothing would ever happen.
VCOS: So is that the bottom line in Rent?
DAVID: Well, it’s the story of these people who were not just surviving but thriving in a war zone. And they looked at life and said, “I’m going to choose love. I’m going to choose ‘how do you feel today?’ But that idea of “no day but today” – about choosing to live in the moment, not in an alternate universe of social media or another alternate reality. Oh, look. I’m not at the party. You’re watching the party on social media but you’re not really at the party.
VCOS: Do you find kids living more in the present than you did?
DAVID: No, I don’t.
VCOS: They’re looking beyond the present?
DAVID: There’s always something else. They’re looking at what’s going to come. I think kids today have so much pressure about what school they’re going to be getting into and what they’re going to do. I have a 19-year-old kid who is amazingly talented and amazingly creative and can make so much stuff happen and he says, “But how am I ever gonna…?” At 24, I wasn’t thinking about buying a house. I just wanted to know what my next job was. I wanted to know what my next adventure was.
VCOS: So kids are more sophisticated today?
DAVID: I think they grow up faster. I think the race feels harder for them. But so was the race in those days. I started this rehearsal process off by showing them pictures of the Lower East Side of Alphabet City and of Tompkins Square. And I found characters and said, here they are. There’s Angel. There’s Maureen. There’s Roger. Look at these people. Look at the Pyramid Club. I said that’s who these people are and that’s where they’re living. That’s the abandoned building. And I said, don’t look at me to go tell you about those people. I wasn’t down there. I was living a much different life on the Upper West Side. I was much more fortunate with career things than those people. But that being said, all of us were living under a Sword of Damocles. We just were. That was our world.
My best friend, Tony, my roommate in New York, was the youngest person ever to be inducted into the SSD&C [note: Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers]. He’s stage managing Marlowe on Broadway with Lisa Mordente when he’s 24. He’s production stage manager on a Broadway show. He was working for Mike Nichols doing his horse ranch auction. I always said that if Tony had ever written an autobiography, it would have been called “Torch Go” because he called the cue when they were redoing the Statue of Liberty. He stage managed the ceremony and he got to call the cue, “Torch, Go!” for the torch coming off the Statue of Liberty. That’s the kind of stage manager he was. So we lost Tony at 28. So I’m doing The Immigrant at the Taper when I got a call from him saying, “It’s not good. I’m full blown.” And I flew back. I had a break for three days during rehearsal. Now, once your T-cells crossed over under 200, you were preparing to say goodbye. And I had to say goodbye to something like 40 people in that time. My life was defined by who I was losing and what that time meant, so yeah, this play has a great significance. Now I gotta tell you, in all honesty, I’ve been throwing things at my kids that are far beyond their boundaries and what they know of the world. Most of them have not even said “I love you” yet. Some of them have just had their first kiss. So when Angel says, “I’ve been hearing violins all night, how about you?” I’m asking them to really look at that. I’m asking them to look at an audience and say, “Will I lose my dignity?” They understand that as “Are you going to change my diaper?” So I’m asking a lot of these kids. And I’m so grateful that we have an administration and a district that’s supporting this.
VCOS: You know, when you go into a theater, you think that you’re entering a world of fantasy. Oftentimes, shows have characters that have been invented by playwrights, and these characters lived in times that are either historical or in places that are far-flung. You know, The Music Man, Les Miserables, etc. Rent is more like a reality show brought to the stage.
DAVID: In some ways, yeah. It’s kind of like Hair or A Chorus Line. What Michael Bennett did with Chorus Line – when you listen to those original tapes of that cast talking about what they would do for love and where those songs in that show came from, where all those stories came from, that’s reality TV. I think when Bernstein and Robbins and Sondheim and Laurents came together and conceived West Side Story, they were looking for a grit and reality that was birthed in Oklahoma! and were taking it to such a different opera. You could even say that about Porgy and Bess. You can’t take those characters and say, they’re over here. To a certain number of people, those were real people. So I’m so grateful we had Gilles Chiasson because he spent time in Jonathan Larson’s world and spent time with Michael Greif and the conception of this. Did Gilles tell you a story about the fashion industry?
VCOS: Yes, he told me about how a buyer at Bloomingdale’s saw the show and got all of his friends in the fashion world to come see it.
DAVID: Yes. They were the first people to get behind Rent. They thought the characters looked so cool. Remember when Madonna first came out? She looked cool but she was so wacky looking. Well, what do you think Rent was? And it was the fashion industry that did it. The actors were in every fashion magazine in town because of how they looked. You had a trans person on stage, you had this multi-racial cast, and we just hadn’t seen that before in that way. OK, so I’m bringing Rent to lily-white Agoura, but you have to work with what you’ve got, and these kids are really going for it. And they’re realizing that there is a world outside what they know. When you asked me originally “How do you make it relevant?” I think the greatest thing we’ve done this season with Laramie Project and Rent and then Next to Normal is that these beautiful, young, talented, creative, hungry kids are seeing a world outside what they’ve grown up with. They’ve gone a lot of flashy, dance-for-Grandma musicals (laughs) and Krassner comes along and says, “I’m gonna throw a little real-world at you and see what you do with it.” And you know what? They’re doing it. I’m going to be selfish for a moment. I made a promise to myself when I started teaching and started working with students. Part of my job is to replace that generation that we lost. That’s really important to me. We lost too many Michael Bennetts and Kenny Sachas and Tony Chases. We just lost way too many. Those shows will never get seen and we’ve got to get the fire stoked, and I hope Rent does that.
Rent plays through February 29 at Agoura High School’s Performing Arts Education Center.